In the spring of 1987, leading Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Gary Hart issued a casual challenge that turned out to be one of the most fateful in American political history.

“If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead,” he told a New York Times reporter who’d inquired about rumors of womanizing and infidelity. “They’d be very bored.”

Not quite.

For a coincidence of timing meant that that off-the-cuff remark not only came back to haunt Hart and destroy his career, its consequences continue to bedevil American political culture to this day.

That situation ignited something in filmmaker Jason Reitman, and the result is the smart, fast and funny “The Front Runner,” a tip-top piece of entertainment starring Hugh Jackman as Hart and Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee, that is as significant as it is enjoyable.

With his most ambitious film, Reitman returns to the form of some of his earlier issue-related pleasures, such as “Thank You for Smoking,” his biting film on Big Tobacco, and “Up in the Air,” about American corporate culture.

This time, working from the book “All the Truth Is Out” by political journalist Matt Bai (who co-wrote the script with former Hillary Clinton Press Secretary Jay Carson and Reitman), the filmmaker takes on the genie that’s not going back in the bottle, the increased role tabloid journalism has taken in our political discourse.

Despite the potential for rancorous finger-pointing, one of the remarkable things about “The Front Runner” is its determination to be even-handed, to encourage viewers to make up their own minds (at least up to a point) about what happened 30 years ago and what it means for today.

Given that it details a story whose start-to-finish outline is quite well known, “The Front Runner” is also a surprisingly gripping piece of work, with cinematographer Eric Steelberg and editor Stefan Grube deserving a chunk of the credit.

They were foremost in putting into practice Reitman’s decision to both echo Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate,” one of the director’s favorite films, and structure “The Front Runner” a bit like a classic 1970s Robert Altman film, complete with multiple characters, overlapping dialogue and a roving, probing camera.

This is most apparent in the film’s ambitious opening scene, set a few years earlier, and presenting, in a formidable single take, the entire chaotic panoply of political staffers, print journalists and television trucks that surrounded Hart’s San Francisco concession to rival candidate Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.

Even then the Colorado politician was thinking about the future, telling an aide, “in four years they still won’t have an answer to our ideas.”

In fact, as Hart prepares to formally enter the race in 1987 it’s with an impressive lead. Showing how three weeks in April derailed all that is the order of business here.

At the center of what went wrong was a floating party on a boat implausibly called Monkey Business where, in a deftly understated scene, we see Hart lock eyes with the attractive Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). We never see any actual monkey business, and the real-life participants have never confirmed any, but what matters here is not the truth but what happened next.

At the scrappy Miami Herald, reporter Thomas Fiedler (Steve Zissis) gets an anonymous phone tip about the Hart-Rice liaison. Roughly coincidental with the appearance of the Hart quote in the New York Times, Herald reporters fly to Washington to do something reporters had not done before: confront a candidate about his extramarital life.

As structured by Reitman and his co-writers, “The Front Runner” alternates its focus between the campaign, the journalists who cover it and the candidate’s family.

Since both co-writers Bai and Carson have extensive campaign experience, it’s no surprise that the movie encourages us to feel we’re on the inside, including the grind of campaigning and cynical humor.

If there is a drawback to the film’s methodology, it’s that, with the exception of J.K. Simmons — on point as always as veteran Hart campaign manager Bill Dixon — it is sometimes hard to tell the numerous Hart staffers and the various journalists apart from one another.

There is no such problem with the film’s stars, starting with Jackman, who does excellent, charismatic work presenting Hart as an elusive politician, at times arrogant and thin-skinned but a genuine idealist who wanted to govern and didn’t see why he had to reveal his personal life to do so.

“The Front Runner” does equally well with the women in Hart’s life, starting with Farmiga, who brings her formidable presence and skill to the challenges of being a politician’s wife.

Also strong are Paxton as Rice and Molly Ephraim as composite Hart staffer Irene Kelly, two women who end up spending a lot more time together than they had planned.

“The Front Runner” treats Rice with respect as a bright, ambitious if somewhat naive young woman, and her scenes with Kelly, deputized to wrangle Rice after all hell breaks loose, are especially strong.

Having this much focus on a candidate’s private life was unprecedented and a turning point in how we cover politicians. Did the Herald and everyone else overstep media boundaries, or was the information sought an essential key to character?

“The Front Runner” is careful not to seem to be taking sides with this question. The portrayal of Fiedler and his Herald cohorts leans toward opportunism, but A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), the composite reporter who asks Hart about adultery at a news conference, is treated with respect. It’s up to us to decide which side to take.

Given that “The Front Runner” opens on election day, the film also encourages audiences to ponder how the Hart-stopping change in media behavior has impacted politics. Do today’s successful candidates need stellar morals as a result of what happened, or are they simply more adept at being celebrities and surviving character assassination?

Hart, more prescient than successful, seemed to see it all coming.

“Politics in this country — take it from me,” he said in his 1987 withdrawal speech, “is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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